SPORTS: Lynch isn't Hep, but he's a coach you can root for

September 3, 2007

I recall being on the football field at Ball State University in November of 1996, moments after the Cardinals had clinched the Mid-American Conference championship.

The head coach, Bill Lynch, was exceedingly thrilled, as you might expect. But he also was exceedingly humble, deflecting the credit and making sure the spotlight was focused not on him, but on his players.

Fast forward to 1999, when Ball State was in the throes of a losing streak that was to reach 21 games before it ended in 2000.

I called Lynch on the telephone to do the predictable column about dealing with adversity and losing. He couldn't have been more cooperative or open. His tone was one of determination, not self-pity. He blamed no person or circumstance. It was on him.

It says something about a man who, in victory, deflects the credit but, in failure, accepts all responsibility.

Most of all, in the thrill of a high or in the depths of a low, Bill Lynch was one and the same.

And he was certain to be no different on Sept. 1, when he was to be on the sidelines in Indiana University's Memorial Stadium.

Lynch has realized the professional dream of becoming a head football coach in the Big Ten. Yet he achieved his goal by the most tragic of circumstances, the death of Terry Hoeppner.

It's ironic that Ball State ended that 21-game losing streak with a stunning victory over Hoeppner's Miami of Ohio team. Hep saw something as he coached against Lynch in the MAC and continued to believe in him even after Ball State fired him and he eventually ended up at Division III DePauw. So, when Hep got his coveted chance to lead the Hoosiers out of the woods, he plucked Bill from Greencastle and made him his assistant head coach and offensive coordinator.

Now Hoeppner is gone, and Lynch-the former Indianapolis City Athlete of the Year from Chatard and outstanding two-sport star (football and basketball) at Butler, where he later jump-started his head coaching career-is front and center.

There is no small number of skeptics wondering if he is up to the task. The chat rooms have been filled with detractors, not that those who inhabit such places have earned credibility. Yes, IU did lose the two games-to Division I-AA Southern Illinois and Connecticut-last fall when Hoeppner was unable to coach and Lynch stepped in. Yes, the Ball State program went into a downward spiral after its early success under Lynch.

Hard to argue with facts.

Lynch has said he can't be Hoeppner. Who could be? Hep was one of a kind, a package of unmatched energy and unbridled enthusiasm. He had finally ignited the spark in Bloomington and this year it was going to turn into a four-alarm fire. Then that damn cancer took him from us.

Lynch has to put it all back together, but not so much the physical pieces of the team. There's enough returning talent-starting with quarterback Kellen Lewis and wide receiver James Hardy-and a favorable schedule that could finally end IU's long postseason drought.

It's the emotional pieces.

At what point do the Hoosiers cease being Hep's team, and start being Lynch's team? Perhaps they've crossed that juncture already, since Lynch coached spring ball and Hoeppner passed away in June.

And how much will the IU fans-alumni and students-stay behind Lynch when the inevitable tough times come? With Hep, there was belief. With Lynch, there is uncertainty.

With that uncertainty comes the speculation on Lynch's future in Bloomington. The chalk says if IU does not have a winning season, IU Athletic Director Rick Greenspan's hand will be forced, especially with the investment that is being made to expand and improve Memorial Stadium. Others speculate that a 7-5 or 6-6 season with a mediocre bowl tagged on the end won't-or shouldn't-be enough, and that Indiana needs to go out and spend whatever it takes to bring a "big name" to Bloomington.

Lynch has shut out the background noise, coaching his team and looking no further down the road than the next play.

I've known Bill Lynch since he was known as "Billy," now the appellation given to his son and assistant coach. He's a quality person, a good man, the kind you just want to have success because he represents so many positive qualities.

It has the makings of a remarkable feelgood story, of triumph rising out of tragedy. Yes, there is major incentive to want to "play 13" for Hep. But there are also plenty of reasons to want to "play 13" for Bill Lynch.

Benner is associate director of communications for the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to bbenner@ibj.com. Benner also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.
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